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The school on the old Ambassador Hotel site offers an education in L.A. sociopolitics

Loss of Myron Hunt's 1921 building is still lamented. What's opening in its place is trying hard to be part of the neighborhood, while conceding here and there to its tumultuous history.

September 09, 2009|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Like a kindergarten teacher kneeling down to meet her 3-foot-tall charges at eye level, the new elementary school at the Ambassador Hotel site, set to open today, is impeccably attuned to the importance of a first impression.

Designed by the Pasadena firm Gonzalez Goodale Architects, the school extends a friendly, crisply proportioned facade along 8th Street, on the southern edge of the sprawling 76-acre site over which the hotel long presided. Inside, the two-story school wraps 46 classrooms around a pair of generously sized courtyards. It accents its combination of zinc panels and expanses of glass with a number of walls painted Creamsicle orange.

Once that gregarious welcome wears off, though, the feeling that the school engenders is mostly an unshakable ambivalence. Its very existence, after all, means that Myron Hunt's 1921 Ambassador building is gone for good, which is in turn a reminder of the Los Angeles Unified School District's unwillingness to consider, in any but a perfunctory way, adapting the hotel for use as a school.

Beyond that, the architects' attempts to ground the school firmly in its urban context have also succeeded in blunting, at least to a degree, its sense of aesthetic ambition. If the Gonzalez Goodale design is propelled by any boldness, it lies in the decision to regrade the sloping southern end of the old hotel site so the elementary school could meet 8th Street at sidewalk level. But that move, though complicated and expensive to execute, is essentially invisible now that the school is complete.

A full assessment of the Ambassador campus, of course, will have to wait until an adjacent middle school and high school -- also designed by Gonzalez Goodale -- open next fall, wrapping up a $400-million makeover of the hotel site, where a half-dozen early Academy Awards ceremonies were held and where Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot after winning the California primary in June of 1968. Together the three schools, known as Central Los Angeles New Learning Center No. 1, will enroll nearly 4,500 students.

In its eager-to-please competence, the elementary school is something of a mirror image of the new visual and performing arts high school on Grand Avenue, by Wolf Prix and the Austrian firm Coop Himmelblau, which also opens Wednesday. That school is an enigmatic marvel formally and deeply conflicted in nearly every other way, particularly when it comes to the relationship between architecture and school-district politics. The one at the Ambassador site, while thoughtful about the role it plays in the neighborhood, struggles to rise above a serviceable, if brightly colored, aesthetic.

The real disappointment, then, is that during its gargantuan building campaign the LAUSD, even at high-profile locations, has been so consistently unable to find an architectural middle ground between high-design pyrotechnics and well-behaved practicality.

To be fair to Gonzalez Goodale, its notion of treating the three schools as a city-within-a-city holds tremendous potential. The elementary portion may gain fresh complexity when seen in relation to those bigger campuses, which appear poised to deliver a dramatic sense of scale.

And perhaps ambivalence about the results was built into this architectural process from the start.

Replacing the hotel with a group of public schools was always a tough idea to oppose, even for those of us who valued the Ambassador as an architectural landmark and for its cultural significance. This was hardly a traditional preservation battle pitting a greedy developer against neighborhood activists.

Of course, all the hand wringing about Myron Hunt and his legacy, and how Los Angeles treats its aging architecture, will mean nothing to the children who begin school on the campus this morning. (Two separate schools, actually, will share the elementary building: UCLA Community School and the New Open World Academy.) Those students will enter the school through a pair of generously sized entryways that the architects refer to as "portals." A library behind mostly glass walls anchors the architectural composition at the southwest corner, and includes a door to the street that will allow the space to be used for community events in the evenings and when the school is not in session.

Once inside, students will move along shaded, open-air hallways on both levels, some topped with large circular skylights and others offering views of the middle school and high school sites, with the Hollywood Hills rising in the distance. At the same time, the elementary grounds are marked by an enveloping, protective feel. Keeping the elementary students' space enclosed while also offering them glimpses of the campuses they'll attend later on is the school's most effective architectural gesture.

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